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Advanced UV Operations – The Next Generation of Oil & Gas Inspections

Whether detecting pin-hole leaks or corrosion, inspecting the integrity of flare stacks or monitoring pipelines, critical oil & gas infrastructure inspections today are performed by foot, helicopter, and Unmanned Aircraft (UA), more commonly known as drones. Of these three approaches, UA aerial inspections provide the greatest productivity and safety impact because they can acquire more accurate digital and thermal imagery quickly, be deployed to hazardous areas, and identify safety issues not seen by the human eye.

In the upstream or exploration phases, aerial sensors can detect naturally occurring methane seeps or serpentine sweeps. Midstream, inspection and monitoring of hard-to-reach assets by UA can replace rope-access and scaffolding and can easily be scheduled as frequently as needed. Downstream, UAs can detect corrosion in pipelines and early signs of leaks that may be invisible to the human eye. More importantly, aerial inspections help reduce industry fatalities and injuries, as they will move people from oft dangerous ‘field’ jobs into automation management, operations and data analysis. Furthermore, aerial solutions can help identify suspicious and un-authorized activity around critical infrastructure.

And yet, current UA inspections are not performing at optimum efficiency. Today, oil-well and pipeline UA inspections occur under FAA regulations known as ‘14 CFR Subchapter F, Part 107’ rules. Under these regulations, drone operations must be conducted using at least one drone per pilot. The drone can be flown manually by the pilot using a remote controller or automatically using some form of automatic flight control system flying a pre-planned flight plan. The UA remains within the line of sight of the pilot so that control of the vehicle can be maintained should issues arise with the vehicle.

This kind of conventional remote aerial inspection– single operators and single UA flying in line of sight – while functional in locations where a pilot can always easily see the vehicle, it is not optimum. In locations like the Permian Basin, or off-shore, with vast infrastructure requirements, operating within the confines of Part 107 ‘one drone – one pilot’ becomes more of a hindrance than an efficiency. Take a well-pad inspection, for example – at each well-pad, there may be up to 80 inspection points that include compliance, infrastructure, and maintenance inspection. As of November 2018, there were 492 oil rig drilling holes in the Permian Basin. Under the FAA’s Part 107 rules – one drone, one pilot -−a UA operator may only be able to inspect 6-10 wells per day.

Advanced UA operations – the next generation of UA inspections

While UAs are already delivering quality and quantity benefits, true optimization comes in the form of Advanced Operations – Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS), One-to-Many, Flight over Non-Participants, and Night Operations. These Advanced Operations give UA inspection programs new functionality, capabilities and the freedom to expand inspections.

Increased Mobility with Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS)

Under the current regulatory framework for commercial drone operations in the U.S. (Part 107 or Section 333/347/2210), drone flights BVLOS of the pilot are prohibited without an approval from the FAA, and a waiver specific to the operator and site for every given operation.

As of November 2018, the FAA had issued 2,223 Part 107 waivers – yet only 1.17% were BVLOS waivers (with a few additional BVLOS exemptions that have been approved)1. While the FAA and the industry have referred to these previously-granted approvals as “BVLOS,” in fact all of these approvals required the use of a visual observer or a second pilot to visually scan the airspace with their eyes to identify other aircraft that could create a collision hazard with the drone. This ‘visual observer’ version of BVLOS is limited in its utility.

In October 2018, AiRXOS, part of GE Aviation, developed the processes, procedures and training for Avitas Systems, a GE venture, to obtain FAA approval to fly an unmanned aerial system BVLOS in Loving County, Texas, a 22.5 square mile area owned by the Shell Oil Company. The permission authorizes Avitas Systems to fly an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) over 55 pounds at low altitudes without a visual observer for industrial inspection. This is the first FAA-approved civil use of BVLOS with radar.

This is true BVLOS capability at its best – by utilizing decades of aircraft and airspace safety expertise, analyzing the operating environment and key flight hazards, AiRXOS streamlined and accelerated the process for obtaining FAA civil use approval, working with ground-based radar and vehicle providers and operators to develop a BVLOS safety-case, prepare a successful waiver application and gain operational approval from the FAA. While the industry may believe BVLOS is still in the future, AiRXOS is already obtaining these waivers for oil & gas customers.

Increased Cost Savings with One-to-Many

An alternative or addition to BVLOS operations is performing inspections with a 107.35 waiver enabling one (1) pilot to operate multiple UAs. This waiver expands UA operations by giving one inspection pilot the ability to fly multiple operations simultaneously. This is significant on two fronts: 1) It allows a single pilot to conduct multiple inspections on a single site, at the same time. As a result, it increases productivity enhances safety, and reduces program costs. 2) Multi-operator, multi-UA operations contribute to increased efficiency and system effectiveness, thus optimizing assets. Depending on the site and the costs of ownership of the UA, labor and infrastructure, there may be considerable labor savings in operating with a 107.35 waiver.

By example, if an inspection pilot could perform 2X as many inspections per day flying multi-drone operations, the cost savings would be substantial. Expanding the geographic footprint of pipeline monitoring, chimney and flare stack inspection or refinery and storage tank inspection by allowing a single pilot to conduct multiple operations simultaneously allows a company to expand and scale UA inspection programs.

No longer ‘impossible’ to get advanced operation waivers

What’s clear is that the future of UA inspections is taking flight today. The ability to receive approval to fly beyond Part 107 restrictions for operations, beyond the visual line of sight, and that include one-to-many, are no longer ‘impossible to get’, they are being obtained by industry-leading AiRXOS on a consistent basis. UA technology and regulatory parameters are changing rapidly, and oil & gas organizations should look for tested partners dedicated to the highest levels of manned and unmanned safety, backed by regulatory industry aviation expertise and technology and engineering experts in order to meet the rigor, specifications, and level of safety required by the FAA in getting the next generation of inspection waivers.

1. Federal Aviation Administration, Part 107 Waiver Granted, November 13, 2018.

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